Tories Start Eastleigh Election With Three-Point Lead

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives begin a battle to win the Eastleigh parliamentary special election with a three-point lead over Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, who currently hold the seat, a poll showed.

While Cameron and Clegg are partners in the coalition government, the one who wins the vote on Feb. 28 may be able to reassure his party he’s enhanced the chances of retaining power after the 2015 general election. The one who loses will face questions from his own side over strategy.

The poll commissioned by Michael Ashcroft, a Conservative Party lawmaker in the upper House of Lords, found 34 percent of respondents saying they planned to vote Tory, against 31 percent for the Liberal Democrats, and 19 percent for the opposition Labour Party. The poll of 1,006 adults was conducted by phone Feb. 4 and Feb. 5, immediately following the resignation of Chris Huhne, the incumbent. No margin of error was specified.

“Conservative voters are the most likely to be sure how they will vote, and Lib Dems who say they may change their minds are more likely to switch to the Tories than any other party,” Ashcroft, who has run polls before other recent special elections, said in a statement. “However, Labour voters are more likely to be open to changing and are more likely to move to the Lib Dems if they do.”

Huhne, who was energy secretary in the coalition Cabinet until last year, quit Parliament this week after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice by asking his wife to say she was driving his car when it was caught speeding in 2003. He faces jail.

Council Domination

Clegg called the special election for the first possible date, gambling that a short campaign will suit his party, which has 40 of the 44 seats on the local council and has provided its member of Parliament since 1994.

“Eastleigh has been in Lib Dem hands for a long time, and the party has a strong local-government base,” Ashcroft said. “Huhne was a popular and, by all accounts, assiduous MP, and many in Eastleigh will be sad to see him go.” He said “the Tories should not expect many to switch out of disgust.”

There’s been increased tension between the coalition partners in recent months, with rebel Conservative lawmakers killing changes to the House of Lords favored by the Liberal Democrats and Clegg’s party retaliating by blocking a redrawing of electoral boundaries that would have helped the Tories.

At the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats took 47 percent of the vote in Eastleigh, the Conservatives 39 percent, and Labour 10 percent.

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Hutton in London at rhutton1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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